Sunday, November 6, 2022

Mastodon Lessons Learned

Why even write about Mastodon if so many other people already posted awesome guidelines? That was my initial thinking and reasoning not to write this post. However, when I realized I received more and more questions on how I use Mastodon and what I learned so far, I decided to write it anyway. You never know whom it might help, especially these days. So here it goes.

Why writing about social platforms here?

Twitter was massively influential for me, my growth, my career. And with "Twitter" I mean the people and community I've found on this platform. It encouraged me to learn more, being intrinsically motivated. It encouraged me to interact with the community for the first time (super scary for me - even a like or retweet, not even talking about commenting or posting a tweet on my own). It encouraged me to join my first conference! Thanks to that first conference, I started meeting so many people in real life, and building my network. Which again encouraged me to start speaking at conferences and blogging and sharing in general. And so on. So yes, Twitter was and is massively influential for me as a platform.

Twitter, Mastodon, why a new platform?

Well. With the recent changes at Twitter (both in management as well as the massive layoffs that followed), no one knows how long this social platform might be available to us in a bearable format anymore. While I personally built a lot on this platform for myself, I was finally facing the fact that I needed to look for alternatives. I've tried lots of other social media platforms in the past, yet nothing gelled with me as much as Twitter did. This meant that moving my focus to one of the other platforms I already knew, like LinkedIn, just wouldn't work as they don't fulfill my needs (while LinkedIn fulfills another purpose for me, it just never could be an alternative for my Twitter-like activities). Hence, I decided to give new platforms a try. The one that I ended up with was the one that lots of people already talked about: Mastodon. As many others I've experienced friction there in the beginning. And yet I decided to stay, as it came as close to fulfilling my "Twitter" needs as nothing else did so far. And I just love seeing so many awesome people from various communities I'm part of being already there or also giving this platform a try these days. We'll see what happens in the future.

What did I learn so far that helped me?

A word of caution upfront: I've only been on Mastodon now for a bit more than one week, so this is written from a newbie perspective. I'm pretty sure I've missed things and I'm still learning.

A few things I've learned so far that help me. Okay, it's a bunch of things, the list grew quite big. Sharing all of these in case it's helpful for others as well, not knowing who's aware of what already.

  • Language and terminology is both similar and different to Twitter. There are Mastodon-specific terms, like "instance". Instance is the place you choose to create your account on. Twitter offers you just one entry to their platform, Mastodon is hosted decentralized on lots of different instances run by different people. So your handle will always also include the instance you're on, e.g. "". More regarding language: there are similar concepts, yet using different words. For example, your tweets are called "toots" on Mastodon, likes are "favorites", retweets are "boosts". Some words look the same yet have very different meaning. For example, direct messages are not privat as such, just directed and visible to the mentioned users.
  • Choosing an instance. Just choose any instance as playground, check out how Mastodon works, then (maybe) make a better choice before posting anything. My personal story here: Choosing an instance intimidated me for months, hence I postponed the creation of my account until the day that Twitter was actually bought. In the end I made the decision to just do it and go with the biggest instance: Why? First, to make a decision, finally (and one other person I knew chose that instance as well, couldn't be so bad I thought). Second, to have a handle that is neutral enough for all kinds of audiences. Third, I have many different interests and didn't want to limit myself, and it would have made the choice again too hard to even take action. Hence, I ended up where I still am. I know I can move instances any time yet really don't want to - especially now that I know my posts won't move with me, only my followers would. Interestingly, I only realized after joining that having lots of people there actually can help with visibility of things and it might have helped to reduce the initial friction I perceived. And yes I know, having lots of people there means it can be super slow under the load, and yes it's run by a company - yet for now I do support their endeavors. One of the most important things I totally neglected at that time: find an instance where you like the administration and moderation rules. They are just way too important.
  • You won't see everything from every instance. This platform is really decentralized and federated. Every instance can only show you what it knows about already, e.g. information about a certain account. For example, you will see an account's follower count as the overall count it is, let's say nine followers. Yet you won't usually see all followers of a user on your instance as this instance is not aware of all of them. That means, the list only shows let's say four follower accounts instead of the nine overall. A mismatch I really needed to digest first and be okay to live with!
  • Different clients really make a different user experience. The following ones are the best ones I've found so far and I'm using them for different purposes. There are a few more for mobile and web - try them out and see what works best for you.
    • Fedilab on Android: paid, yet was really worth the money as it's fulfilling most of the needs I have, like a shortcut to view the timelines of my lists of people to follow on top. For now, I'm using this one nearly all of my time.
    • Tusky on Android: a nice Android app with lots of features, really liked it better than the official Mastodon Android app.
    • Advanced web view. You can activate it in your preferences. It really reminds me nicely of Tweetdeck that I loved using long time ago. One downside: if the instance is under too much load, it's often just too slow to use due to too many requests being sent.
  • Configure your preferences, especially two-factor authentication. Yes, there's lots of settings, make yourself familiar with them and adapt them to your needs. Each client also have their own options they offer. One thing I'd recommend anywhere: set up your two-factor authentication for increased security of your account.
  • Everything is public, so treat everything that way. This is probably one of the main things to really internalize. Toots have different visibility levels and can also be "direct" to those mentioned so only they see them, yet are never really private. Hence, there are no real private conversations. And if you include any handles from others they will get notified. Just treat everything as public, don't share anything sensitive or confidential. Probably good advice for any social platform.
  • Hashtags are the only way to find things. So hashtags it is all over again! Like it was for Twitter back in the days. Including in your profile bio. And yes, really - you cannot search for anything else in posts, only for hashtags. You have 500 characters available per toot, make good use of them.
  • Fill your profile right away. Adding a profile bio and meta description really helps with people deciding if they'd like to follow you or not (as it is on other platforms as well). Do this right after the account creation before starting following others or posting. Don't forget to add hashtags here as well.
  • Introduce yourself to the instance. An #introduction post helps people on the instance find you. I saw this tip and people doing it, so tried it myself - indeed worked nicely.
  • Strategies for finding people. Especially if you'd like to rebuild networks on Mastodon here's what helped me.
    • I started with checking who people I've already found on Mastodon follow themselves. Could find lots of people already this way.
    • Many people use their same username on both Twitter and Mastodon, so directly searching revealed further people.
    • Then I used the mobile Twitter client to search for #mastodon and filter the results for people I follow, ordering by latest. Again, more people identified.
    • There are tools to help you see who of the people you follow on Twitter are also on Mastodon. I've used Fedifinder, worked like a charm. For making it easier for other people to find you the same way, add your Mastodon account to your Twitter bio, location, link or name.
  • Know how to follow people on other instances. No, you don't have to sign up to each instance separately, you can follow them from your instance even if they are on a different one. Doing so is not as intuitive though. The prerequisite is that you need to be authenticated in your own instance. If you use the mobile apps this usually works better as we're staying in the same context. Yet if you use the web interface, this means you cannot just open an account in a new tab and follow the account from there - as that one is then not authenticated. You have to access the account in the same tab. You can also make use of the search box to search for the full handle (including the instance), e.g. "", or their profile link, e.g. "" to find that account and follow it. Or just add the handle to the base url of your instance, e.g. "https://<yourInstanceBaseUrl>/".
  • Make use of lists. I use lists on Twitter heavily to filter for content from people I follow actively (never cared about my home stream), so I was thrilled to see this feature available on Mastodon as well. So once again I'm working with lists of people I follow more closely, not the full home stream - just like I always did on Twitter. Hence it doesn't matter to me as much if I wouldn't find people easily on my local instance, I find them in different ways. One thing that's nagging me here a bit: you can only add people to lists if they accepted you as follower, not before. I often follow and instantly add to lists, yet well, have to live with this. Also, currently lists are only visible to you - there's an open feature request to make lists publicly visible and hence sharable with others.
  • Being kind to people usually helps. Like saying thank you for them following you. I've built that habit on Twitter early on when I started there and never stopped - so I'm not going to stop that now on that different platform. So far, it already resulted in nice initial conversations.
  • Add notes for accounts. You can add notes to each account that are only visible to you. Again, everything is public, yet this feature still helps me work around a few things. Like: helping my brain remember who this person was again if they did not provide a photo, bio or handle that reveals that to me. Or, taking note if I already thanked that person for following me as I cannot as easily find the previous interaction again (unlike on Twitter).
  • There's no algorithm, timelines are just that - time-based. If you like something, go ahead and "favorite" it. The author will be able to see you liked it. If you like something and would like to share it with others to see it as well, "boost" the message. The boosted post will also appear in your own profile as a message that you boosted.
  • Consider accessibility as you post. As hashtags are the only way to find posts, make sure to write them in Pascal Case so they are more easily read by both humans and screen readers (example: #ThisIsComprehensibleAsSeperateWords). Add alt texts for images and media. You can also define the language you posted that toot in which again helps tools and people to navigate your post.
  • Add content warnings. This is another great feature built into Mastodon. By adding content warnings you give people the option to decide if they'd like to learn more or not! Very useful for any kind of potentially triggering content, yet also for e.g. not revealing spoilers, announcing marketing, and more.
  • Threads are similar and different. To create a thread, you can post your first toot first and then reply to it. Or you have an interface that allows you to instantly prepare and post them all together. In any case, the resulting thread is always a reply to the previous toot.
  • There are tools to cross-post between Mastodon and Twitter. I personally don't use them, I prefer deciding myself what to share where. It's good to know they exist, though, and you will see people using them.
  • You can export and import data. For example, you can get csv files of your lists and similar. You can also request your archive including your toots and more. I haven't tried the import functionality yet; it seemed to work nicely with the Fedifinder output to follow people you've already followed before on Twitter.
  • Look under the hood and make use of the API. Interacting with the web interface, I mostly had developer tools open watching requests. Especially in times of high load, it's super helpful to see what actually happened and if my latest action succeeded or ran into e.g. a gateway timeout. I realized not all Mastodon users have experience in tech. Personally, I found it really helpful to have that experience when learning the system and Mastodon hence also intrigued my tester me. One thing that I really appreciate is that Mastodon is open source, you can go check out how it's actually implemented, suggest features, report issues, even contribute yourself. The documentation and especially API documentation is great too. When things are slow and I wanted to make bulk changes, I just used the API to do so directly with less waiting time. Like adding accounts to my lists, or adding private notes to accounts.
  • Expect errors and be patient. It's open source, it's run by lots of volunteers in their free time (or people working for non-profits), it's software in general. Expecting errors and learning how the system works help. For example, I have email notifications active. When I receive a notification, e.g. that I have a new follower, the related link to go to their account does not work and leads to an error page. Doesn't mean it doesn't exist! I take the email notification as hint to go and check my notifications directly in the user interface. Also, having patience helps. Loading times can be long at times when instances are under heavy load (e.g. because people are currently creating a new presence there - and yes, I'm on the most loaded instance). Sometimes having to wait for something can also be a good thing though and make interactions more intentional. Sometimes it also really takes time to load data between different instances and they might run into gateway timeouts - again, patience and trying it again pays off. Don't let an error screen scare you off. Looking under the hood again can help a lot with realizing what's going on.
  • Yes, it's not Twitter, and that's a good thing. Even if Mastodon still feels like Twitter a lot to me personally (especially like Twitter in the former days, where I also had to learn how this tool works and how it doesn't). So yes, Mastodon does fulfill the needs that previously Twitter met for me. Hence I've decided to invest into my presence at Mastodon as well. I'm not leaving the bird app yet (didn't leave many other networks either). Still, I'm now building up another social network I can cling to if Twitter really goes completely downhill.

Any other helpful resources?

There are awesome guidelines out there. Here are a few that helped me understand Mastodon better.

A few final remarks!

I've been on this platform for a bit more than a week and I expected it to take time to rebuild networks - yet I'm seeing lots of lovely people there already. I also knew I could not expect the same engagement as I've seen on Twitter - yet surprisingly many people interacted with me and my posts already. And they did in a kind, insightful and constructive way I really appreciate. So who knows which positive surprise is up next!

What now for you? Well, that's up to you. Here's my Mastodon account in case you'd like to check it out: Maybe see you there! :)


  1. Thanks Lisi. This was very useful. I have now signed up. :-)

    1. Glad to hear it helped! Thanks for the feedback, much appreciated :)